September 16, 2009 / 11:16 AM / 8 years ago

Life in the labels yet: EMI's big classical discs

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Big record labels are in terminal decline, so it is said, but to judge from the hoopla over the EMI/Apple release of remastered Beatles discs, plus a host of EMI classical offerings, the patient is still kicking.

It's rare that anything from the classical catalog is a big seller, and the space retailers devote to it seems smaller every day, but that hasn't stopped EMI from bringing out some hefty offerings that will force a few collectors to weigh up the cost of purchase versus remaining space on the CD shelf.

One of the headliners, as far as the label is concerned, is conductor Antonio Pappano's reading of the Verdi "Requiem".

The performance by the British conductor, whose parents are of Italian lineage, was recorded live earlier this year in Rome's new Parco della Musica with the chorus and orchestra of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia and soloists.

As might be expected, the interpretation has an "Italianate" flavour, and EMI is plugging that angle with a note on the back cover saying this is a Verdi "Requiem" performed "in the way that only Italian artists can".

The risk in saying this, however, is that two of the most cherished "Requiem" recordings of the past half century or so were led by Italian conductors.

One of them, Arturo Toscanini, knew Verdi, while the other, Carlo Maria Giulini, had a lineup of soloists for his 1960s studio recording, also on EMI and remastered in 1997, that reads like a wish list: soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, mezzo Christa Ludwig, tenor Nicolai Gedda and bass Nicolai Ghiaurov.

Pappano, with the help of more sophisticated recording equipment, the airy acoustic of the Roman hall and his own excellent set of soloists, including tenor Ronaldo Villazon and bass Rene Pape, has a lot going for him, however.

The contribution of his sweet-voiced soprano Anja Harteros is particularly affecting, inspiring critic Neil Fisher of The Times of London to write: "Hear her soft intercessions and suddenly Judgment Day seems a few more years off."

RATTLE AND BRAHMS

If there's room for another reissue of Beatles albums, after the tens of millions of LPs and earlier CD pressings, there's room for another set of the oft-recorded Brahms four symphonies.

That's even more the case when the orchestra is the Berlin Philharmonic, one of the world's best orchestras, and the conductor is Sir Simon Rattle.

This is core repertoire for the Berlin Philharmonic, who has been playing the symphonies since they were written and has been around long enough to have had Brahms as a guest conductor. It could be the case, though, that the music is so ingrained that Rattle can bring little to the party.

One review, also in The Times, remarked that in the first two symphonies "Rattle's viewpoint can be hard to spot" -- and this about a conductor who had a very original take on "The Rite of Spring" and is not known to be bashful.

For all that, the playing is glorious, as is the live recording made in Berlin's Philharmonie hall, although at times it seems a bit heavy on the bass.

There's plenty of competition, though, not least from the cycle Claudio Abbado recorded with the same orchestra in the early 1990s for Deutsche Grammophon, but as always, Rattle is a contender.

TEMPEST ISLAND DISC

For something completely different, it would be hard to top another EMI offering, the 2007 Royal Opera House production of Thomas Ades's "The Tempest", conducted by the young and already soaring star of British music himself.

The Shakespeare play about magical doings on a haunted isle has inspired composers ranging from Purcell to Sibelius, but Ades, in his 30s, delivers one of the most striking British opera scores since his hero, Benjamin Britten, set the post-World War Two bar high with "Peter Grimes".

There's plenty here for any open ears, including a wonderful and haunting aria by tenor Ian Bostridge as Caliban and an ultra-mysterious soundtrack for an enchanted banquet.

But for sheer vocal fireworks, nothing can beat the soaring soprano part for the sprite Ariel, written to order for American singer Cynthia Sieden. Many listeners have feared for the future of her voice, no one has been unimpressed.

Editing by Paul Casciato

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